All that is bad about social media has proven to be no match for all that is good about Peterborough.
Through the strangest of circumstances, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee living alone in Turkey has connected with a Peterborough couple who are determined to bring him to Canada — potentially saving his life by offering the opportunity for a new one in a new country.
It was back in early May that Dave McNab, a retired Peterborough County OPP officer, checked out a private Facebook group about birds after he was notified about a thread and some comments that were being made.
“It looked like there was a squabble going on and that got me curious,” recalls McNab, noting another group member, Matt Park, was “smacking people for being rude to somebody.”
“As I started reading back through the thread, I saw that some members were attacking some young fellow. I read more and realized the fellow they were attacking was a refugee. Matt was basically saying ‘Give the guy a chance.’ He really shone through as somebody defending the underdog.”
The person some of the group’s members were attacking was named Rashid. With little knowledge of English, he had posted a request in the group — intended for people posting photos of birds — for guidance on how he can come to Canada to start a new and safer life.
What he received instead, McNab says, were “racist, hateful, and anti-immigrant” comments from a number of group members, with one member even commenting “Bomb them all … they’re worthless.”
How Rashid stumbled upon the private Facebook group was by pure chance, according to McNab, who speculates that, with his limited English, Rashid had seen the word ‘Canada’ in the name of the group and that had prompted him to post his desperate plea for help in the group. While some group members criticized Rashid for posting a topic unrelated to birds, others considered his post a scam and some turned to racism.
McNab, who says he was “angry, shocked, and disappointed” over the responses he read, resolved to do something after discussing the matter with his wife, veterinarian Kristy Hiltz. That something has evolved into a determined effort to sponsor Rashid to come to Canada and pursue his dream of studying to become an engineer.
Having been involved directly in five refugee sponsorships, this is nothing new for the couple.
Back in 2015, Hiltz began Salaam Peterborough, a group of Peterborough and Millbrook residents that sponsored Syrian refugees to come to Canada — their efforts to sponsor one family were profiled in Macleans magazine in 2016.
McNab says the couple’s motivation for getting involved this time around was two-fold.
“First, this poor kid was getting abused,” he explains. “From our previous experience with refugees, I knew that what he wrote in his post was exactly how things were. It reminded me so much of another fellow we sponsored — he had talked of running through the night to the border, and the fear and the desperation.”
“I thought, ‘This poor kid has probably gone through the same thing.’ Now he reaches out, thinking this is the one nation in the world that can help him, and they attack him. I thought ‘I’ve got to fix this.'”
McNab was also inspired by the efforts of group member Matt Park to turn the tide of abuse against Rashid.
“He’s basically at war with all these racists,” McNab says. “He had the courage to stand up to them. He took a bit of a bashing too. I said to Kristy ‘I’ve got to back him up.’ I messaged Rashid and wrote that I can help with information and answer any questions. I wrote ‘Message me and forget about the racists. Talk to me and Matt directly.'”
Initially, McNabb communicated with Rashid via a video call. He was greeted onscreen by a “a scared young man — very fearful, very nervous. He probably knew 10 words of English, and I knew 10 words of Arabic. We quickly exhausted that and then it was a bit of playing charades and some Google Translate. But now we knew he was who he said he was.”
The next day, while gardening at his home, McNab couldn’t stop thinking of his 10-minute chat with Rashid, and the reception the desperate teenager’s initial inquiry had received from some members of the Facebook group.
“I thought ‘I’ve got enough food growing out here to feed 10 families and that kid is probably starving.’ And I was still really upset over how he was treated. I saw some bad things over the course of my (policing) career, but they way they attacked this kid was like hyenas attacking a rabbit. It was unbelievable.”
Now, with guidance from Michael VanDenHerberg, a Peterborough resident who has helped facilitate the resettling and integration of several refugee families in the city, an effort is underway to bring Rashid to Peterborough.
McNab explains that what’s being sought is a church’s agreement to be the sponsorship agreement holder.
“We also have to raise about $18,000 to pay for his first year here for rent, food, clothing, transportation — things he’ll need to survive but not be a burden on taxpayers. That’s a government requirement.”
McNab was surprised and delighted when VanDenHerberg offered $5,000 to get that fund started — an act of generosity that inspired McNab to kick in $5,000 of his own.
“Suddenly it was real,” says McNab, who is seeking to crowdfund the remaining $8,000.
McNab is working on setting up a GoFundeMe page, but says he has encountered a delay with approvals from the U.S.-based company because the fundraiser mentions Syria and Turkey. Anyone who wants to donate immediately can email McNab at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In addition, McNab — who is a photographer and videographer — is willing to work for donations from anyone who wants to preserve a memory or chronicle an event through photos or video.
“My hurdle with the money is going to be an easy one in comparison to the hurdle with the sponsorship agreement,” McNab notes.
“Michael has a connection with a church. He has approached them and asked if they’d consider Rashid under their umbrella. I’m waiting for an answer. If they say yes, it’s a one to two year process to bring him here.”
The fact that Rashid just turned 18 is significant, as no one under that age can be sponsored.
“I think of my kids at that age,” says McNab of where his empathy comes from. “Rashid doesn’t have official status in Turkey because he’s Kurdish. In the Middle East, with all the refugees and the political situation, if the police catch him, he’s illegally in Turkey and they’ll deport him back to Syria.”
“He’s in danger every day. He’s working, but we know it’s not safe for him to go out. He works for $300 a month and doesn’t do anything else. He’s afraid to leave his apartment.”
“Imagine you’re running from the police in Turkey, and yet there’s a police officer in Ontario who’s pretty much your only friend and your lifeline. The irony is unbelievable. The trust that requires on his part is phenomenal.”
As the effort to bring Rashid to Canada continues, McNab has been working with him to improve his English. Trent University, where McNab teaches part-time, has given him permission to use the university’s Zoom account to provide structured lessons to Rashid.
As with the other refugees he and his wife have helped bring to Canada, McNab says Rashid’s situation is another reminder of how fortunate we are to live in Canada.
“Rashid, for example, will say he’s cooking potatoes. He’ll send me a picture — and he’s having one potato for dinner. My leftovers are more than his meals. It has woken me up to just how hard things are for other people.”
“We’ve got people willing to come here and work their asses off for a better life,” McNab notes. “They want to pay taxes. They want to make Canada a better place. We have too much here to not share it. That’s the first lesson I learned. The second is anyone can make a difference. One person can make a huge difference for anyone else. All you have to do is wake up and try.
The end goal now, adds McNabb, is “to get Rashid here safely, get him going on his education and career, and then see if we can one day help him reunite with his family — if they’re still alive.”
“It feels like he’s part of the family now, but it’ll be better when he’s sitting at the table with his Canadian family, joining us for dinner and cottage time and all that Canada has to offer.”
This story has been updated to remove the name of the Facebook group to avoid confusion with similarly named Facebook groups.
This story has been updated with a link to Dave McNab’s GoFundMe campaign to bring Rashid to Canada.